You often hear complaints that Hollywood no longer makes mid-range movies for adults. While plenty of examples refute this on a technical level, it’s true we see fewer of these types of films than we did in decades past. Thank goodness for Gringo. I’m not sure how this film got made on this level, but I’m so glad it did.
David Oyelowo plays the titular Gringo (which is deliciously ironic since his character is a Nigerian immigrant), Harold, a mild-mannered corporate busy bee who learned from his poor father - whose brother found wealth by ripping off naive folks with nefarious get-rich schemes - that if he just goes to America, works hard and follows the rules, he will find great wealth. But that’s not what happens. Instead, Harold is taken advantage of, by both his corrupt boss friend, and his horrible wife, who is ruining his credit and also fucking his corrupt boss friend. On a work trip to Mexico, Harold discovers he will soon lose his job, later he finds out about his wife. He retaliates by kidnapping himself for corporate ransom. The problem is his company is in deep with a drug cartel, and people really do want to kidnap him.
That’s the simple version. Gringo’s full plot is far too complex for satisfying summation. Over a dozen characters dance through its story, all of them woefully unaware of how minuscule a role they play in this crazy business. Only the audience knows what’s really going on at any given time, and the script does a superb job of making sure we’re all on the same page while everyone else wanders around like idiots.
Director Nash Egerton has put together a dream cast and told them all to have the time of their lives. No one - with one exception I’ll get to in a bit - is doing anything particularly deep, but it isn’t that kind of movie. Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton (who is in real Tom Berenger mode here) are sinister on a cartoonish level. Amanda Seyfried isn’t working too hard to play an innocent. Thandie Newton should be playing much bigger, better parts than this, but she still brings something to the role.
And then there’s David Oyelowo, who shoulders nearly all of the film’s comedy. This is an actor we know primarily through high-drama, and yet here he is, going big and broad and owning all the film’s biggest laughs with a panicked schtick that never gets old. This is essentially the story of a wronged man getting his revenge. It would just be empty silliness without a real pro like Oylowo making sure we dramatically empathize with the character in his early scenes, before everything gets nuts. He's delightful, and I hope he gets the chance to do more comedy.
This is Oyelowo’s movie, but I have to mention Sharlto Copley. Robbed of his outrageous accent and penchant for hyperactivity, Copley turns in a unique performance here. Normally a film’s wildest element, Copley’s insanity barely registers among all the chaos in the film’s second half. He’s quite good in the film, offering the story one of its few heartfelt(ish) characters. It’s just a different, more measured performance than we’re used to seeing from him.
Gringo is a film for grownups, but that doesn’t mean it’s obscene. The violence, sex and language seem perfectly in balance with its tone. It’s not trying to turn normals away and it never tries to be tougher than it is for the sake of notoriety. But when the time comes for action, it doesn’t back down either.
I hope people come out for Gringo. It would be great to get more movies like this. With the recent Red Sparrow and Game Night, it’s possible we're getting into a minor trend of films for grown ups that don’t need to be the biggest movies ever. Gringo is a million miles from the best movie ever (it probably won’t stay with you long, to be honest), but it is a fun two hours that has little more on its mind than entertaining you.